Maths debate

Thembalethu Qolo, KTC, Nyanga

For the past few days I have been struggling with the current conversation that is taking place about mathematics: should we have it, or not, in our schools.

I have heard professors, departmental spokespersons and ordinary citizens adding their voices to the conversation.

So, what sparked the topic? Let’s get the facts before we remove the fats: Simple arithmetic – counting, adding, subtracting, dividing and multiplying, are fundamental to modern daily life. Notwithstanding the obvious value of understanding the exchange of money, these basic concepts are vital to mathematics and are essential life skills.

Currently we hear on all media platforms that South Africa is in dire need of scarce skills such as engineers, auditors, forensic specialists, mathematicians, and so on.

All those require mathematics. In 2010 we built stadiums and imported all the skilled labour to a country that has a high unemployment rate because we lacked ability to count and use BoDMAS principles.

This conversation comes as a shock to me. I’m puzzled as to who or what started the topic. What is the cause of our high matric rate failure? Is it the lack of pupils’ interest in maths? Or doesn’t the Department of Education have enough mathematicians? Are our mathematics books hard to source? Yet, (pupils at) private schools are (doing well in the subject).

About 26% of our budget is spent on education. We are not under-resourced or under-funded. We could and should be achieving the same results.

We don’t need to think hard about the solutions – all we need is to duplicate. I was astonished when I heard a Department of Education spokesperson saying that most public school pupils do not need mathematics because they choose “artistic talent courses” at tertiary institutions.

The simplest question then is how many artists die poor?

While the arts are essential to our basic education, so is the ability to reason and rationalise. The sciences train young brains to think laterally, they are broadly considered difficult subjects because they require us to think “outside the box” but also to follow tried and tested principles.

These must be considered essential attributes even for artists, who need to think for themselves and support themselves as we all do.

Mathematics helps with quick decision-making and critical analytical thinking. Thabo Mbeki, in a conversation with Power FM chairman, said: “If we misdiagnose a disease, we will offer a wrong cure.”

This mirrors our crisis. Maths is not the problem – but the lack of dedication and the method being taught in public schools, is.